I was taken aback recently when I walked past the small, shocking pink townhouse that for years housed Asti’s restaurant in Greenwich Village. It sported a brand-new red neon sign emblazoned with the words “Strip House.” So it had come to this! How low this venerable old tourist trap, with its jolly opera-singing waiters and bad Italian cooking, had fallen! There was a small clipping from a magazine in the window, and I stopped to read it. The premises, I learned, had not been taken over by a sleazy burlesque house exiled from Times Square, but by a celebrity chef. Now, instead of gummy spaghetti carbonara and “shrimp scampi” knee-deep in grease, David Walzog, executive chef of Tapika and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, promised foie gras and New York strip (nothing was said about arias).
Still, I was sorry that Asti’s had gone. Admittedly, I’d only been there once, when I first came to New York, but it was an institution. The place had great atmosphere, with virulent red flock wallpaper covered with dozens of signed photographs of obscure opera singers. I decided to give the new restaurant a try, and I showed up for dinner on a Saturday night in the company of my son and his friend, both 12 years old. The boys balked at the door when they saw the sign outside. “Are you sure this place is for kids?” they asked.
After walking through a dark, sexy red lounge set with sofas and a bar, we entered the dining room, which looked just like the place I remembered, only more so. The room (designed by David Rockwell) seemed even redder than I remembered–the ceiling is red, the padded banquettes are red and even the tiles in the bathroom are red. The same sort of red flock wallpaper is hung with even more celebrity photographs, dating back to the teens, among which the new owners had mixed in (and highlighted) old photographs of nude pinups that Stanford White (if not Al Goldstein) would have delighted over. The boys averted their eyes as we were shown to our table.
“Are these napkins pornographic?” asked my son, unfolding a square of gold-colored linen embossed with small silhouettes, like Vargas pinup girls in various poses. He and his friend quickly put them on their laps and drew up their chairs so they were concealed under the table. When the waiter arrived to take our drink order I asked, “Aren’t you going to sing for us?” He looked puzzled. So instead of “La Donna e Mobile,” we had Barry White over the sound system.
A few minutes later, a busboy set down a mysterious tiny silver dome before us. My son lifted the lid expectantly. His face fell. “Butter! I thought it would be a delicacy.”
But there is a real delicacy at Strip House, to be shared by the table for $26: foie gras “torchon.” The two thick slabs are so buttery and rich I could feel the cholesterol coursing through my veins as I consumed chunks of it on toasted brioche. It has the same effect on me as chocolate.
There is also the occasional oddity. A first course of skate and escargot was as strange as it sounded. The skate was a perfect piece of fish with a golden crust, moist inside, but underseasoned. On top of it were snails that looked as though they’d been trying to crawl across but expired before getting to the other side, where they would have landed in a lovely herbaceous lemon parsley sauce. On the other hand, I was won over by a “flan” consisting of braised beef short ribs wrapped in soft leaves of cooked endive and served with roasted garlic cloves and tiny chanterelle mushrooms.
Basically, this restaurant, with its rotisserie and broiler, is a steakhouse. And Mr. Walzog certainly knows how to produce great steak. The boys split a porterhouse that was juicy and pink, with a strong beefy flavor. The strip sirloin was one of the best steaks I’ve eaten; it was seasoned just right, so that there was a little crunch of sea salt when I bit into the charred crust. A trio of lamb–chop, loin and a braised flank–was a better choice than the rotisserie pork shoulder, cooked to a crisp under a dark mahogany glaze. Whole red snapper (replacing sea bass on the menu) was also overcooked, arriving from the rotisserie in an exhausted mush. Our waiter cheerfully took it back and replaced it with the strip loin, for which I am still grateful.
In steakhouse tradition, there are side orders of vegetables, and they’re worth the extra six bucks. Potatoes roasted in goose fat were light and floury inside a crunchy golden crust. Cooking had intensified the already pronounced flavor of “melted” heirloom tomatoes in shades of green, orange and red. I didn’t get much of a taste of the advertised truffle on the creamed spinach, but the greens were just fine. Vegetables en papillote tasted better than they looked when I broke open the parchment envelope and saw a rather colorless medley of artichoke, fennel, carrots and red pepper.
Strip House has a comprehensive, interesting wine list with many bottles under $40. The list is peppered with quotes from Ovid, Pliny, Napoleon and George Meredith, among others. But I wish the waiter wouldn’t have kept saying “Can I remove the evidence?” each time he cleared away an empty glass. They should add Ernest Dowson to the list of quotes: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.…”
For dessert, the boys shared a fondue reminiscent of Scout camp. A chocolate dipping sauce was served over a flame in a copper pan and they set about spearing chunks of pineapple, strawberries, marshmallows and chocolate pound cake rolled in coconut. “Do you think a chocolate-covered maraschino would taste good?” asked my son, taking one out of his “virgin” Shirley Temple. Of course it did.
Pastry chef Wayne Harley Brachman may have had the “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” in mind when he came up with raspberry crêpes suzette. She would probably have liked the chocolate cake à la Kiev, too. (Our waiter looked nonplused when I asked if melted chocolate spurted out instead of butter.) It was a molten chocolate hazelnut cake concealed inside a phyllo pastry package, accompanied by a roll of chocolate ice cream wrapped in nuts, hot fudge sauce and raspberry coulis. But the flaky caramelized apple tart was my favorite, with brown sugar hard sauce and mascarpone ice cream.
At Alain Ducasse, when they present you with the high three-figure bill after your dinner, they give you a choice of pens, among them Montblanc and Cartier, with which to sign the check. Strip House ought to give you one of those ball-points with a picture of a woman in a black bathing suit that falls off when you lower the pen to write. More fun than a Montblanc any day.
13 East 12th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Well priced and interesting with international choices
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Main courses $22 to $32
Lunch: Tuesday to Friday noon to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday cocktail lounge open to 2 a.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor